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At first sight, a new work by Omer Fast, who was born in Israel but lives in Berlin, seems fairly straightforward. For "The Casting," two screens hang next to each other in the middle of a blacked-out gallery, with projections on both sides. One pair shows a 14-minute video of a standard interview, with the interviewer (Fast himself) projected onto one screen and his subject, a young American soldier, beside him on the other. The soldier's narrative, recorded live at an Army base in Texas, has two parts. First the young man talks about a strange date he had with a lovely young redhead during his posting in Germany. Then he narrates a terrible experience that came after he'd shipped off to Iraq: In shock from a roadside explosion, he shot at an oncoming car and killed one of its innocent passengers.
Walk around to see the backs of those two screens, and you see footage that seems meant to illustrate the soldier's narrative. There are shots of the young man and his date at her home and in her car, and of the mayhem of the bombing and shooting in Iraq.
Fast seems to take a standard documentary's mix of talking-head narrative and live-action footage, then pull the two apart to live on opposite sides of his screens.
At least, that's what's up at very first sight. Look and listen closer, and the story told by this artwork gets impossibly baroque. (It's so complex that words can barely describe it. Washingtonians, at least, will get to have a full dose of Fast when an earlier piece, "Godville," appears in the second part of the Hirshhorn Museum's "Cinema Effect" show, which opens in June.) Though the soldier's narrative seems to proceed in the most seamless way -- it sounds like a simple tape of someone talking -- it turns out to make surreal jumps between the bloody horror in Iraq and the romantic drama in Europe, and then back again.
The soldier recalls the shooting: "At the time I was like, '[Expletive]! You know, 'I'm gonna go to jail! I just shot somebody who didn't need to be shot.' I didn't know that kind of thing would just be ignored later on." And then, without the slightest hint of a pause, his voice continues: "But I ran back to the rear of the car and I remember yelling, 'And never call me again!' And I slammed the door. And she couldn't get in through the gate." We've somehow gone straight from death in the Middle East to failed love in Germany, without even knowing when we made the trip. By means of the most stunning, fine-grained reediting of the videotape from his original interviews, Fast has crafted a soundtrack that has all the hallmarks of a normal person's storytelling but none of the continuity or sense we expect of such a thing.
Of course, this editing process leaves the visuals from the interview even more disjointed; the slick cuts that make a new whole from the video's original sound wreak havoc on the images in sync with it. At one second the soldier's wearing a sweater; an instant later and it's become a shirt, even though there's been no pause in his speech when he could have made the switch.
Such improbabilities continue on the screens' flip sides. The deluxe visuals they give us of the soldier's stories must clearly be fake, since no cameraman could have been around to film the German date or the shooting in Iraq. Fast's costumed actors strike absurdly melodramatic poses. Or sometimes they aren't in costume at all; they wear rehearsal or audition clothes and are shot in an empty studio. It's no news to anyone that the stories that we tell about ourselves and our times are mostly built from fragments and imaginings. But I can't think of any artist who has managed to depict -- you might say deconstruct -- the realities of that construction as subtly, as convincingly or as engrossingly as Fast. * * *